When considering the existence of monsters, one has to understand they are not a fabrication of contemporary society nor are their origins restricted to it. Ghosts have been said to represent ancient spirits; vampires are rumoured to have risen during the Crusades or earlier; and werewolves are a product of Native legend. Therefore it’s not incredibly far-fetched to re-imagine popular fiction in the context of some supernatural scourge. Most wouldn’t consider Jane Austen as the first choice for such a transformation, but Seth Grahame-Smith‘s adaptation of her novel was clever and surprisingly consistent. Now Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a movie, but with a significantly different plot twist.
Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) and her four sisters abide by the rules of etiquette, exude eloquence and are all lovely, which makes their mother (Sally Phillips) very happy. They’re also expert fighters and zombie executioners, trained swordswomen and skilled shots, which makes their father (Charles Dance) very happy. The arrival of Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth), a young bachelor, at a nearby cottage sends all the local women atwitter, but he only has eyes for Jane Bennet (Bella Heathcote). On the other hand, his disagreeable friend, Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley), is less taken with their new company and comes under fire by Elizabeth who won’t tolerate his arrogance. In the meantime, the war against the zombies is coming to a head as the growing undead population threatens to overrun the country.
It’s remarkable these two worlds come together so seamlessly, but Grahame-Smith expertly transports Austen’s beloved characters into the centre of a zombie epidemic. True to form, their bustle dresses are the perfect guise under which to conceal their weapons while also attractively harnessing their feminine wiles; and they competently emerge flawlessly from almost any ghastly encounter. The men are equally capable and appear just as dapper as they traverse the battlefield; though they find themselves in a position to be rescued decidedly more often than their female counterparts. And to their credit, each of the actors demonstrates these opposing dispositions with ease and sincerity.
However where the book is a parallel reimagining of Austen’s novel, the writer/director Burr Steers takes significant liberties in adding a new conspiracy not included in either of the original sources. The key events and conversations are preserved, though condensed in most instances; but that which is missing is replaced by the more action-oriented zombie war. Most likely to appeal to a wider audience that wouldn’t be simply spellbound by the classic dialogue — although even the undead are articulate — this added storyline provides a more definitive enemy and further opportunity to fight the monsters; though the blood is still kept to a minimum. It also gives Mr. Wickham (Jack Huston) an alternate storyline as he lobbies for an unpopular combat strategy.
As mentioned, all of the actors are well-suited to their roles. James is a spitfire and Riley is appropriately brooding. Huston constantly emits an air of sliminess, while Lena Headey is perfect as the battle-scarred legend Lady Catherine de Bourgh. But in spite of their efforts, they are all outdone by Parson Collins, played by Matt Smith. They turn the old-fashioned, boring wife-seeker into a cowardly caricature who tends to gush with shameless enthusiasm about accomplishments that aren’t his own. As a result, audiences are promised at minimum a laugh each time Smith enters a scene.